I talked in the last post about the fact I grew up in Norfolk. A few years before he passed, my Dad moved to the Newmarket area, but prior to that I grew up in a small town on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens called Downham Market.
For the first time in over a decade I had a good reason to head back to Downham. (While I’ve called it “home” in the title of this post, it really isn’t anymore.) Two old school friends managed to coordinate being back in the UK - from New Zealand and Malaysia, so this was a big deal - and we organized to meet up on Monday night. Funnily I’d seen these two friends more recently than other friends I met up with that night - as we’d been to NZ and Malaysia on our round-the-world trip - but it was still more than 6 years since we’d seen each other.
Anyway, first thing was to get across to the UK, which proved harder than expected. After a morning on the slopes (it’s a weekend in the winter season, so I wasn’t going to forgo snowboarding unless absolutely necessary) I headed across to Zurich to catch the plane to Heathrow.
When I got through security I already saw that the flight - which was due to leave at 6:25pm - said “more info at 6:25pm”. Not a good sign. When 6:25pm came around, sure enough the flight was delayed until at least 7:35pm. All flights to the UK and Ireland were apparently being impacted by Storm Isha.
Once we were all finally settled on the aircraft, the pilot came out and announced with typical Swiss transparency that if the wind speeds were to increase as they were expected to, we wouldn’t be able to land in London. But we had enough fuel to turn around and come right back. He opted to fly there anyway - which everyone agreed with, of course.
The landing was really hairy - in all my years of flying I don’t remember having one as bad. But the pilot made it to thunderous applause from the passengers.
But it wasn’t over: the wind made it impossible to connect the jetway to the plane. They tried for at least 45 minutes until they managed to get some stairs attached to the back of the plane (I was sitting nearer the front, of course, as that’s the way the day was going), but it was well over an hour by the time we all managed to get off the plane.
My old friend Simon - who lives in Eton, which is quite close to Heathrow - waited patiently in the Terminal 2 car park until I managed to find him. After a bite to eat and a short night’s sleep I was up and out - I managed to snag an early lift into central London for a 9am meeting at St Pancreas.
As not everyone we were hoping to meet with could make it in - the storm was quite disruptive, particularly to public transport - we ended up heading to a UCL building for meetings with some professors from The Bartlett.
This was perfect, as my train up to Downham was from King’s Cross. I’d forgotten about the peculiarly British system of waiting for your platform to be announced, sometimes just a few short minutes before the train departs.
The train passes through Cambridge and Ely, both islands of relative civilization in the otherwise very rural surroundings of the Cambridgeshire fens.
Downham Market was still very familiar, but also seemed so much smaller. I’d walked through these streets since my early childhood, so it’s a strange feeling to head back there after such a long time away.
The town clock is still the most obvious landmark.
We also walked up to St Edmund’s Church, which is quite close to the house I grew up in.
It was absolutely lovely seeing my childhood friends. I’ve known all of these fellows since I was 11 and at least one since I was 3 or 4.
We had a fun time visiting the two local pubs (the two that are left, anyway) and the local Indian restaurant. Fun fact: this was the first time I’d ever been to the Indian restaurant in my home town. It was not an option - even as a young adult - to eat Indian food anywhere but at home (my mother is of Indian origin).
One thing you often see in this part of the world is a lone sugar beet in the road. There’s a lot of beet farming nearby that gets processed into sugar at the nearby town of Wissington. Trucks laden with beet often lose one or two as they go around roundabouts.
It was strangely sad leaving Downham. I doubt very much I’ll be back there anytime soon, but you never know.
The train only takes 90 minutes to get to King’s Cross, after all.
Back in London I had some meetings in our Agar Street office and a drink with my Autodesk Research colleagues at their local after-work pub before catching up with Simon for a few more.
The trip back was completely unremarkable compared with the trip across, I’m very glad to say.